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Destination Argentina

San Juan Province: Sunshine, Wine, and Dinosaurs

Take a journey through the colorful mountain valleys of the land of sunshine, wine, and dinosaurs. The history of San Juan Province stretches well into the past, with a long tradition of olive groves and vineyards.

Text and Photos: Mariana Lafont

 

The very first thing that catches the attention of visitors to San Juan de la Frontera is the city’s low-rise, modern architecture. This is an old city, but it was completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1944. This oasis-city (founded in 1562) contains surprising contrasts with its leafy streets –a miracle wrought by irrigation– surrounded by desert. Several tours of the capital of San Juan are available, covering everything from history to traditional handicrafts.

A good place to start is the Domingo Faustino Sarmiento Museum, which gives visitors a peek at the childhood of this Argentinean hero and educator. A few steps away is the Don Julio Living Olive Oil Museum, which was named after wine-maker Julio Marún, who started production of Tupelí oil (named for a Huarpe chief) in 1949. His children later began making fine, old-fashioned, virgin olive oil and eventually created the Don Julio Museum. The exquisitely aromatic and mild-tasting oil is hand-made using the traditional cold-pressing method, which is showcased at the museum. Pieces on exhibit include an old press, or stone mill, for crushing olives. Tours end with an olive oil tasting.

Those who prefer to plunge into the history of wine should head for the wonderful and informative Bodega Santiago Graffigna Museum, created in 1870, when the San Juan wine industry was born. The San Juan River gorge and the Ullum Dike have helped turn this desert into an orchard. Near Quebrada del Zonda, visitors will find a destination unique in the Americas: Bodega Cavas de Zonda, an extraordinary champagne cellar located in the heart of the mountain in a large tunnel that was excavated in 1932 by Yugoslavian immigrants. The 61 ºF average temperature in the cellar and the absence of light and noise create ideal conditions for storing champagne.

The Age of Dinosaurs

It is a good idea to rent a car, because touring the province can take at least a week. A great place to kick off your visit a tour is Valle Fértil (Fertile Valley), east of San Juan. This department is different from others in the San Juan province thanks to the extra rain it receives every year. In addition to being greener than the rest of the province, this is the only place where the red quebracho tree grows; there are also many cardon cacti.

Leaving the capital, a 37-mile drive along Route RN 141 leads to the enormous Santuario de la Difunta Correa (Deolinda Correa Shrine), visited by pilgrims from all over Argentina. Tourists will notice the many tiny toy houses carpeting the site –people pray to the Difunta for a house, and then place a miniature of their house at the shrine when their wish is granted.

The next stop is Astica (“flowers” in the Huarpe tongue), one of the small mountain oases that abound in Valle Fértil. Family-owned orchards produce a rainbow of citrus fruits: limes, grapefruit, oranges, pomelos, tangerines, and citrons, which resemble giant lemons, but are only used to make marmalade. The valley also provides excellent conditions for aromatic plants, the traditional alcayota (a type of squash used for sweets), and black olives which are made into an exotic preserve in syrup.

The last destination of the day is San Agustín del Valle Fértil, near the renowned Ischigualasto Regional Park, or Moon Valley. The proximity to Moon Valley has encouraged the growth of a tourist infrastructure here. The paleontological reserve, located just forty-three miles away from San Agustín, is the only one of its kind in the world; it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. The reserve gives visitors an idea of the world as it was 230 million years ago, during the last Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era, when dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Eroded geoforms, worn down by the wind, have inspired the lunar moniker, and each geoform has a descriptive nickname: “submarine,” “mushroom,” “bocce field,” and so on. However, the loveliest thing about Moon Valley is the overarching silence —so complete it can sometimes feel overwhelming— that prevails when you close your eyes and imagine this vast area populated with prehistoric animals.

The park has an interpretation center and several trails that can be followed on foot, by car, or mountain bike; all tours include the services of a guide. Visitors planning to make a day of it might consider camping here for a chance to enjoy the incredible sunsets that color the landscape. The nights shine with more than enough stars to please skygazers, who can even take nighttime strolls through the park when the moon is full.

Riding the Wind

Travel from Valle Fértil to Valle de Iglesia (Valley of the Church) involves skirting the foothills of La Rioja, San Juan, and Mendoza, where the ever-changing landscape seems to shorten the long trip. The vast Valle de Iglesia, a rich mining reserve in northwestern San Juan, is surrounded by the Andes and its foothills. The mountains act as a climate barrier, creating completely different weather on opposite sides of the foothills.

While sipping mate and savoring semitas –a tasty bread with pork cracklings that is an essential part of a San Juan breakfast– you can admire the landscape under a cloudy sky, knowing that it is lit by blazing sun on the other side of the mountains. The bends in the winding road provide glimpses of the Jáchal River, one of the largest in the province, as well as the San Juan River. In the distance, the imposing peaks of the Andes reach some 20,000 feet into the sky. Agua Negra, the so-called Bi-Oceanic Corridor, runs through here on its way to Coquimbo (Chile); it is closed several months of the year due to the high altitude.

Visitors are happily surprised to find the enormous lake Cuesta del Viento (Windy Hill) in the middle of the desert. This huge reservoir on the Jáchal River creates a surreal landscape where an intensely turquoise man-made lake sets off the lunar beauty of the desert. As the name indicates, it is windy here, with gusts of up to fifty miles per hour. Far from being a drawback, however, the wind makes this spot a windsurfing hub, and beach hotels and dreadlocked surfers form part of the arid scenery. Summer is the windy season, although the wind blows year-round, especially in the afternoons; sailing and fishing are best done in the morning, when the lake is calm. The main town is Rodeo, an oasis of canals turned into a tourist resort by the dike. A hundred-year-old grove leaning in the direction of the wind frames the entrance to the town; from here visitors can set out on horseback and mountain bike rides, walks, or fishing and canoeing trips.

El Martillo, a lovely and productive ranch that was a pioneer in San Juan’s agrotourism industry, also sits near the entrance. Don’t miss lunch at El Martillo’s restaurant, where visitors can enjoy dishes made with locally-grown produce including vegetables, aromatic plants, several varieties of squash, peaches, plums, colorful corn, quince, raspberries, and strawberries adapted to the dry climate. The garlic in oil is as much of a treat as the traditional desserts, like zucchini in syrup or the spaghetti squash candy. More than thirty years ago, the ranch operated as a part-time farm. Eventually the owner, Enrique Meglioli, moved to the ranch with his family. This retired, but very active, chemical engineer threw himself into raising sheep, trout, rabbits, llamas, and guanacos. The ranch also has bees, grazing pastures, walnut trees, and a poplar forest for timber.

The Pismanta hot springs, volcanic waters believed to have curative properties, lie about fifteen miles away. The name pays homage to a Huarpe chief who took refuge in a cave to await death with his family as the Spaniards advanced upon the area. According to legend, a thunderclap was heard and a crack opened in the rock and began to spout hot water, thus giving birth to the hot springs. The Hotel Termas de Pismanta opened here in the 1950s, and the tiny village of Achango stands on a nearby hilltop, sheltered by poplars. The antique chapel was built by Jesuits around 1630, and its bells are original to the period. A caretaker for this National Historic Monument tells us that the church was constructed from adobe, sticks, cane stalks, and rawhide. The nearly 12-inch-thick walls are coated with goat dung and dirt, and the roof is made of straw and wood. The dry climate has conserved the chapel and the carpets softening its earthen floor, which were woven by local women two hundred years ago.

Stardust

Our tour of the province ends in Barreal (in the department of Calingasta) in southwestern San Juan, some 230 miles from Rodeo. Mt. El Alcázar, a whimsical rock formation reminiscent of Spain’s famous Alcázar, greets visitors shortly before they reach Calingasta. Like all of San Juan, Barreal enjoys an enviably dry and sunny climate. Calingasta is called the “roof of San Juan,” because the Andes here reach 20,000 feet into the sky, offering fantastic views of Cordón Ansilta (the highest in the range) and Mt. Mercedario (22,047 feet), the second highest mountain in the Andes, after Aconcagua. General San Martín’s army crossed these high peaks on the way to Chile during his war of liberation.

After Barreal, our next stop has to be El Leoncito National Park, a marvelous spot for stargazing. The reserve presents a typical foothills environment, preserving the clear, limpid air of one of the best places in the world to stargaze. Fans of the night sky can spend the night and enjoy outdoor stargazing with telescopes. Pampa del Leoncito, a large empty space (approx. 7 miles by 2.5 miles) battered by wind gusts of up to sixty-two miles per hour, sits close by. It is an ideal spot for sand yachting and riding the San Juan wind.